Hello, everybody! I know there are some of you out there who are really looking forward to the next post of the “New Canon” series, but there are some minor hurdles that need to be dealt with before we can post it. Not to worry, though! It’s day will come.
Until then, however, I can’t just let the blog lie fallow, and I have a topic of some interest to me I want to discuss. So let’s get to it, shall we?
Just the other day I finished up Mass Effect 3. If you want to know my full and detailed feelings about the game, just click on over to my Review. It will come as little surprise that I loved the game immensely. However, on top of all the amazing experiences and emotions that game gave me, there is some sour as well. That sourness, the ending, is what I wish to discuss today. As much as anything else, this post is partially to sort out my feelings about the ending, as well as parse my thoughts on the surrounding controversy, the petitions, the “indoctrination theory,” all of it.
For those of you who think I’m going to be all rage and nonsense, I assure you that there are things I feel the ending did well. For those of you who think the ending is blameless…. Actually I really want to hear from you because I only hear from the ragers (this IS the internet), and I want your perspective too.
Oh, and it should be obvious by now, but there are going to be major spoilers incoming, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know ahead of time. Play it and come back. The discussion might help more people deal with it besides just me. At least that is my hope. So…
(Before we start, here are some details about my playthrough that my help contextualize the following material, though I will talk about all possible “Best” Endings – I played a Female Shepherd Paragon who only did Renegade Actions to save the lives of friends and innocents. My Shepherd romanced Liara and chose the “Synthesis” ending.)
I think it’s important to start out by talking about what the ending did well. Partially to remind myself that I do, in fact, love this game despite what I’m going to get into later.
The sacrificial element was well done. Beautiful even. The entire game talks about the costs of war, the price of peace, and the sacrifices and lives it takes to get through it all. Shepherd’s sacrifice to either control the reapers, or synthesize all organic and synthetic life was moving to me. I was literally in tears over it. If there was anyone who deserved that retirement, that joy in victory and life at the end of the game, it was my Shepherd. And she would never get it. The thought of all of Shepherds friends living on without her was heartbreaking, especially in Liara’s case (Shepherd will never get to see all the little blue children!).
Shepherd’s sacrifice was also built up to well, if a tad obviously. The growing sense of dread, desperation, and despair combined with the talks with all of her past crew-mates that felt very much like last good-byes, all pointed to a conclusion that wouldn’t see Shepherd alive on the other side. In this respect, at least, it seems like the developers were trying to bring closure to Shepherd’s story. You say your last good-byes and then go save he universe by sacrificing yourself. These little moments with her friends were touching to me.
Of all the endings, I feel that the best ending was the “Synthesis” ending. I’ll get into some of the specifics later, but part of the reason for me was that it touched on three things that I always like to see. First of all, I’m a sucker for stories about the plight of true AI. The idea of this new creation finding life and love, and yet being feared and despised because it isn’t a “real person” is always a touching story for me (I don’t know why, it just is). I also love things that tickle my imagination with the possibilities of a new and different future. And the last is the successful union of love over boundaries that might seem insurmountable. All of these things were addressed in the Synthesis ending.
Specifically, EDI and Joker are able to actually share a future together. In the simple “Control” ending, EDI and Joker, despite their relationship and survival, are still distant and separated by the boundaries of artificial life and the difficulty, no, impossibility of emotion. In the “Destroy” Ending, EDI isn’t even alive anymore. But in “Synthesis” there’s that magical moment when you see Joker’s glowing green irises and realize that Joker’s DNA has been rewritten into a new form of life. The synthesis of synthetic and organic. And then EDI emerges from the Normandy and immediately you can read the emotion on her face. Joker extends his hand to her with a smile and helps her out of the ship. They both shimmer with the newness of their beings, and they embrace lovingly on this garden planet.
Seeing EDI overcome the limitations of her synthetic design, to carry emotion, was a beautiful sight. Seeing Joker up and moving around (I think he may already be healing from his disease) and embracing EDI… well, If there was any one thing I enjoyed more about the ending, I don’t know what it is. And of course I want to know what the combination of these two forms of life mean for the Universe. How does this change things? I could speculate, but that isn’t what this post is for, and the possibilities are endless.
Those are the things I like and love about the ending. Other things, not so much. Before I get into them, I think I should point you over to my Post on the Rough Writer’s Blog where I analyze the ending from the perspective of a writer and what I think went wrong from a technical point of view. I think that discussion really influences all of this, but I understand if some don’t want to go into the writer’s element specifically.
The most obvious problem from the endings, and I do want to emphasize that this affects all of them, is the lack of closure. The “good-bye” chats with the various crew members were good. No question. But they are a sad excuse for closure. I don’t know what happened to any of those people after the fight with the Reapers. None of them. I don’t even have hints to go off of. I don’t know what happened to the galaxy fleet. I don’t know what happened to all those people, or Admiral Hacket – Hell, I don’t even know what happened to Earth! I mean, I assume they survived and rebuilt, but I have little to base that off of. There are exactly three people I KNOW survived. Joker, EDI and Liara. But I’m left with questions there too.
It seems like they crash landed on some sort of alien garden world, so… How do they get off? I don’t think the Normandy is fast enough to get to another planet ahead of that green wave of energy, so that means they did a Mass Effect Relay jump trying to escape. In that case, doesn’t that mean they are stranded? All of the relays were destroyed by the energy. So are they stuck? Forever? Nobody is likely to get to them any time soon. And if you want closure, at the very least, on your Romance choice (assuming they didn’t die earlier in the game) well, you’re screwed. The only reason I know Liara survived was because she climbed out of the Normandy after EDI. Assuming they do get off the planet they are apparently stranded on, what happens to her? Does she ever have any little blue children from that one beautiful night with Shepherd before the last mission?
There are so many questions. What happens to the rest of the galaxy? What happens now that everyone is cut off from everybody else due to the loss of Mass Effect Relays? Where are the Reapers going now, anyway?
The idea that the Normandy crew is stranded, and what happened to Liara, are my biggest issues with the lack of clarity. A lot of the other things don’t have to be explained. It is important as a writer to hold some things back to keep the audience invested in the world long after the end. But these are gaping black holes of depression that need to be filled. If we don’t assume that they are somehow magically saved, the Normandy crew are doomed to a life of isolation and starvation in at least a portion of the crew.
But those are just the obvious issues. Then you get into the plot holes.
How exactly was Liara able to get back on the Normandy when she was down on Earth with me during the final push? Why didn’t the destroyed Mass Effect Relays destroy all life in the galaxy (It’s been established that blowing one up destroys all life in a system)? Why did the pistol have unlimited ammo just before Shepherd went up in the beam to the Citadel? Why was the citadel so different from how they remembered it? How did the Illusive Man get there too? How was Shepherd able to breathe when he was with the Catalyst? Why did the Catalyst look like the little boy who died on Earth at the start of the game?
Let me make something clear before I continue. I have no real issue with “Space Magic” or “handwavium,” or whatever you want to call it. Hard Science Fiction is cool and all, but I prefer good drama to good science. So I don’t consider the “Synthesis” option’s impossible science (as far as we know) to be a plot hole. Same with the “Control” option’s ability to maker the Reapers just sort of fly away. The “Destroy” option, however, is problematic.
In the “Destroy” option, why does the Crucible destroy all synthetic life? How would it not also destroy all technology if it was that far reaching? If so, doesn’t this option reduce everyone to the bronze age again? Furthermore, it implies that Shepherd is still alive somehow. Since we witness the destruction of the Citadel, and it looks like Shepherd is on Earth, how does she survive the fall through the Earth’s atmosphere? She’s not Master Chief, and even if she rode some piece of the citadel through the atmosphere, the crash at the ground would surely have killed her. If some part of the citadel survived and was floating in space, assuming she somehow has atmosphere, doesn’t she now die a slow death there? Remember that the “Destroy” option has eliminated technology, so how is anyone supposed to get to her?
So, now that I’ve finished the game, and there are all of these unresolved issues, I find myself aghast that I have to ask the question: “Did I win?”
I mean, I saw the credits. There was even a bland after-the-credits sequence that rubs the fact that what happened was fiction in my face (another issue), but I still don’t know if I actually won anything. As far as I know, everyone died. Most died fighting the Reapers, some died stranded on a planet, For all I know, Earth is stuck in the bronze age with the remains of a galaxy fleet falling from the sky, and Shepherd died, for what?
Did. I. Win. I’m shocked that I don’t know the answer at the end of the game. Everything I love about the ending is possibly invalidated by this singular problem. Did I win? Was there any way to win? Was the whole point from the developers to say that no matter what, Shepherd loses? I don’t know. And looking over everything, this is why I still feel so upset. Why so many people are upset.
This of course is the source of the “Indoctrination Theory” that has sprung up in response. What this theory states, is that the end of Mass Effect 3 was an indoctrination dream. The scene in the “Destroy” ending when Shepherd appears to wake up, actually happened right after getting shot by the Reaper (Harbringer, by the way) before going up the beam to the Citadel. Everything between getting shot and waking up in that ending was a dream sequence.
What shocks me most is how much this makes sense. A lot of the plot holes of the ending are explained by this. The dream-like walk to the beam. The way Anderson is always miraculously slightly ahead of you in the Citadel. The whispers. The appearance of the Catalyst as the boy from the beginning of the game. The sudden switch of priorities from killing the Reapers to letting them live. A lot of the “space magic” plays into this too. If you want to read or watch good analysis of why this might be real, a quick google search will reveal the best laid conspiracy theories about it.
I find it sad that this ending is the most compelling to me. It’s probably more sad that I hope it’s true. The mere prospect of DLC that actually does a better job of ending the series has me salivating. Here, Bioware, take my money! But if this were true, it would be a lousy move on the part of the Developer. Ending the game with a “fake” cluster of endings is like pulling a prank on your customers. And DLC won’t save people without internet access, immediately solidifying a large portion of the player base away from any sort of closure. If this is true, and was planned, then it was a really crappy move.
But that’s why I think there’s no way the theory is correct. I simply think the writers at Boware made some dumb choices and mistakes. It happens. Writers screw up. Believing the Indoctrination theory is reading too much into it.
So we’re stuck with the endings we have, flaws in all. Or are we? Right now there are petitions going on, and organized movements to plead with Bioware to change the endings by providing DLC revisions. Initially I thought these efforts were stupid and misguided. Trying to get a company to change its product through a petition? Silly. What right do these people have to ask for something like this?
But I looked into it further and I’ve changed rather drastically on the issue. First of all, after examining the endings closely, there is no doubt that the fans are right to feel betrayed by them. This Article from GameFront examines why, and talks about many of the same things I’ve mentioned here. Furthermore, the petition isn’t just a bunch of ragers and entitled kids. The petition they’ve begun is also a drive for charity. You can read up on them in this Forum Post and see their progress (over 23k raised as of this writing) Here. I’m so impressed at the level of respect and dedication of the group that I donated a bit myself. Even if nothing is ever done, at least the children get helped out.
Do I think it’ll work? No. Not really. But I think there is one way I might get something out of it. There might be some way for one of the future DLC packs to at least have some kind of “Afterwards.” Something that shows that Shepherd’s choices throughout the game mattered. That people were actually saved. That the Normandy crew was rescued. That Shepherd won.
I cannot express how badly I want this.
Now as for whether Bioware “has to change it” or not – No. Of course they don’t “have to.” Even with its heavy flaws, it is their game, and they don’t have to do anything. But should they? I think so. Their audience has put substantial investment in this series. Not just emotional, though certainly that, but financial as well. These are the people who have gone out and bought it day one. These are the people who buy the merchandise. These are the people who tell their friends, their family, heck probably even their enemies and complete strangers to go and buy this game.
Does Bioware “Owe” this player base something? This is a question whose answer relies on your view of the relationship between the customer and the producer, or the recipient and the artist, or, as I talk about at the Rough Writer’s Blog, the audience and the writer.
The fact is, the process is a two-way street. The customer gives up money in exchange of a product that will keep its promises as advertised. This is easy to discern in a physical product. A toaster that doesn’t toast is a breech of that contract between buyer and maker. A disc that doesn’t play music is a breech between a production company and the listener. The path forward is clear. The producer, the maker, must make amends.
When it comes to the more abstract promises, however, in terms of story or quality, things become dicier. There is no question that Bioware broke the promises of its story, but these are abstract promises. So should they “Owe” their audience for it? Should they make amends?
I say “yes.” And the reason why I say so is because that the demand of the maker, the publisher, the producer is in itself becoming more abstract. They demand more than money. They demand mindshare. They demand control over the products they sell. They demand strict DRM and invade the social space of our lives. If companies are allowed to make abstract demands on their audience, then the same may be demanded the other way.
Of course, the demands both ways, being abstract, also mean that there are no legal demands that may be made. Bioware doesn’t have to do anything. They probably should do something, but “have to” goes too far.
For one additional look at the problems of the ending in video commentary format, here’s a guy who puts the heart of the matter in a very concise and clear way:
Now, since the reader is asked to fill in so many of the blanks. I figured I might as well give you my personal rosy and cheery ending, in which I filled in a number of holes according to my own preferences.
It may not be right, but it helps me sleep at night.
When Shepherd Sacrificed herself to synthesize synthetic and organic life, the process evolved life to a higher plane of existence. The basic necessities of life are minimal for these new heavenly beings. While they can enjoy food and water and such, they no longer require it. The Normandy crew, now being immortals are eventually rescued. And go on to live happy lives. Liara has a daughter whom she raises on the stories of her other mother, Nova Shepherd (my Shepherd). The combined galaxy fleet begin the long FTL flight home, but are able to make it within the next few decades with little issues due to their new immortal state. Living as elevated beings, they continue to get along in peace and harmony FOREVER.
The fact that I have to say this to myself to make the ending bearable says something, I think (and not just about me, to all you smart alecks.)
Here’s hoping Bioware listens.
Edward L. Cheever II
P.S. To those of you who think I may be too down on Mass Effect 3, keep in mind that I love the game until the final 10 minutes. It’s one of the best series of all time, in any medium. I love Mass Effect. Please go read My Review to find out.